Academic journal article Ave Maria Law Review

The Role Law Schools Should Play in Filling the Justice Gap

Academic journal article Ave Maria Law Review

The Role Law Schools Should Play in Filling the Justice Gap

Article excerpt

It is a time-honored principle that the practice of law is a privilege burdened with conditions. First and foremost, attorneys shoulder the ponderous task of making justice equally accessible to all people, not just those who can afford to pay for it. The words "equal justice under law" paraphrase an earlier expression coined by Chief Justice Melville Fuller in the case of Caldwell v. Texas. In Caldwell, Chief Justice Fuller stated "[b]y the fourteenth amendment the powers of the states in dealing with crime within their borders are not limited, but no state can deprive particular persons or classes of persons of equal and impartial justice under the law." (1) This phrase "equal... justice under the law" is significant because it encapsulates the very underpinnings of our legal system in which all persons have the right to be treated fairly, regardless of their economic status.

This Article explores how law schools play a significant role in providing the underserved with equal access to the legal system. The Article will begin with a summary of the need for pro bono services and why some lawyers oppose a mandatory requirement. Next, a summary of the different pro bono programs offered by law schools will be provided, along with suggestions on how to select the right program for a law school, and why law students should perform pro bono work. Finally, an overview of some unique programs currently offered to benefit the underserved will be discussed.


The United States Census Bureau reports that the poverty level has increased from 37.3 million in 2007 to 46.9 million in 2010. (2) This includes four consecutive annual increases in the number of people in poverty. (3) Based on the data gathered, "[m]ore than one in seven Americans lives below the poverty line, the highest proportion in nearly two decades." (4) This is "the largest number in the fifty-two years for which poverty estimates have been published." (5)

Along with the increase in the number of people living in poverty, the need for legal services by the poor is at an all-time high. (6) The last decade has seen a burgeoning demand for free legal services in the United States. According to an American Bar Association ("ABA") study, at least forty percent of people with low to moderate household incomes experience a legal problem each year. (7) Only about twenty percent of the legal needs of low-income people are being satisfied. (8) One reason for this is that less than one percent of the nation's legal expenditures are given to legal aid and public interest legal organizations. (9) Another reason is that lawyers spend less than a half hour volunteering each week. (10) Those lawyers who do donate their time are only assisting low-income clients ten to twenty percent of the time. (11) Because the number of people living in poverty is on the rise, the need for legal assistance is only going to continue to increase.

The first step to addressing the need to provide more service to the underserved is to review the rules that are in place to require or motivate lawyers to help. The ABA has provided practicing lawyers with guidelines for the amount of pro bono work they should complete annually in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. (12) The term "pro bono" comes from the Latin "pro bono publico," which means "for the public good." (13) The ABA first introduced the Model Code of Professional Responsibility ("Code") in 1969. (14) The Code stated in Ethical Consideration 2-25: "Every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional workload, should find time to participate in serving the disadvantaged." (15) The rule has evolved over the years, (16) and its most recent amendment was in 1993. (17) In its current form, ABA Model Rule 6.1 states that lawyers "should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year," emphasizing that these services should be provided to people of limited means or nonprofit organizations that serve the poor. …

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